With seven children and a single income from a Catholic non-profit, Jennifer and Douglas Alles didn’t know how they would face the rising costs of higher education: Over the past six years, college costs have nearly doubled.

The Alles’ two oldest sons are in college now. Nathaniel is a senior at Franciscan University of Steubenville in Ohio. Patrick is a freshman studying pre-med at Benedictine College in Atchison, Kan. The Alleses live in Ridgefield, Wash.

How to pay for their kids’ noble academic aspirations?

Enter a small Catholic retailer on the grow.

Last year one Seth Murray, owner of The Rosary Shop in McMinnville, Ore. (rosaryshop.com), came up with the idea of offering academic scholarships to students attending Catholic colleges and universities that publicly support the canon-law mandatum. Pope John Paul II, in his 1990 apostolic constitution Ex Corde Ecclesiae (On Catholic Universities), said, “It is the honor and responsibility of a Catholic university to consecrate itself without reserve to the cause of truth. This is its way of serving at one and the same time both the dignity of man and the good of the Church, which has “an intimate conviction that truth is its real ally ... and that knowledge and reason are sure ministers to faith” (No. 7).

The mandatum, which is required of all teachers of Catholic theology in any institute of higher learning, states that professors will teach authentic Catholic doctrine and refrain from advancing anything as Church teaching that is contrary to the Church’s magisterium.

“We’ve been in business for 10 years,” explains Murray, who owns and operates the store with his wife, Tyra. “This is the first time we’ve had a profit worth measuring. We wanted to do something to promote Catholic education.”

Murray tried to find an existing scholarship that shared his priorities, one he could support with some enthusiasm, but came up empty. “We found two or three Catholic fraternal organizations that provide scholarships based on membership,” he recalls.

While the Murrays get some walk-in business, their company is set up as a mail-order store. They receive approximately 6,000 orders per year.

Their business’ parent organization, Simple Way Limited Partnership and Lay Apostolate (prayer.rosaryshop.com), started in 1996, is structured to support “the laity in their mission to be transformed by Christ and to transform the world.” It is Simple Way that issues the scholarship checks.

Catholic converts to the faith from the Church of the Nazarene in 1994, the Murrays are no strangers to Catholic education. Seth pursued a master’s degree in theology through the University of Dallas’ Institute for Religious and Pastoral Studies, studying lay ecclesial ministry. He’s also worked for various parishes and the Archdiocese of Portland.

“For so many adult Catholics, their theological formation ended when they were confirmed,” says Murray. “Unfortunately, even in institutions that have the word ‘Catholic’ in their title, the theological work that goes on is not always consistent with the Church as it ought to be.”

In setting up the scholarship, the Murrays wanted to ensure that the students they financially assisted would be receiving authentic Catholic theology.

“The closest one can come to knowing whether someone is receiving that or not would be the mandatum or oath of fidelity, some statement by the teacher that they intend to teach the authentic faith,” says Murray. “We see that as truth in advertising and want to support that.”

Trustworthy Theology

One of the requirements of the scholarship application is securing a signed letter from the chair of the selected school’s theology department stating that the school supports the mandatum.

The letter states: “I confirm that, as of the date of signing, all teaching faculty from the department of theology have taken the Oath of Fidelity and/or have
received the mandatum from the local bishop.”

That led to some extra work for Patrick Alles. He originally planned to attend Franciscan and had secured a letter from the dean there. Late in the process, though, Alles switched to Benedictine.

“I felt I was called to go to Benedictine,” says Alles. “The environment provides the opportunity for ministry.”

Alles had to scramble to secure a letter from Benedictine, a process that led to a discovery by Murray. When he received the letter back from Richard White, chair of theology at Benedictine College, the letter bore a hand-inserted edit. That edit inserted the words “full-time” so that it read “all [full-time] faculty” — highlighting a difficulty that students and parents have found at some schools: Even at complying schools, there may be part-time or adjunct faculty who do not have the mandatum.

Patrick’s mother, Jennifer, discovered the scholarship while doing an online search for Catholic scholarships.

“I happened upon it and encouraged Patrick to apply for it. I felt he had a good chance,” says Jennifer. “No matter how well formed children are at home, they are going to be formed at college, so it was essential to us that he not have to sit through classes where theology was being mangled.”

Alles says the mandatum was a key determiner in their choice of schools. Along with Benedictine College and Franciscan University, Patrick also considered the University of Dallas.

“If the school has gone through the trouble of getting the mandatum, you know that they care about passing along authentic Catholic teaching,” says Jennifer. “Having the mandatum helps ensure their educational integrity and suggests that the kind of students going there are likely to be more interested in the faith.”

Majoring in Discipleship

The scholarship also requires an essay on the role of the laity in the modern world and how the recipient’s chosen major relates to that role.

Patrick Alles wrote about the role of the laity as it relates to Christ.

“Christ came to embody how we can be most fully human,” he says. “Each of us is called by God to live out the role that Christ lived out as priest, prophet and king.”

Several students applied for the inaugural year of the scholarship. In the end, the Murrays awarded two scholarships, each amounting to $2,000. Along with Patrick Alles, they awarded Andrew Sodergren, a graduate student in the Arlington, Va.-based Institute for the Psychological Sciences. Students can reapply for the scholarship each year.

Patrick Alles is thankful for the aid.

“I come from a big family. There are other kids after me who will need to go to school,” he told the Register. “Getting money for college is important for my family. It’s important that I received the scholarship. I’m humbled that instead of putting all their money back into their shop, they would give it to a student.”

Murray hopes that the scholarship might serve as a model for others to support Catholic colleges faithful to the Church. While he doesn’t know the exact amount of the scholarships for the 2007-08 year, he hopes to be able to offer between $5,000 and $10,000.

“Perhaps this will spur other people to do the same thing,” says Murray.

Senior writer Tim Drake

is based in St. Joseph, Minnesota.